Dr. Whitney Hollins Sparks Hope for Children of Incarcerated Parents
Happy holidays, everyone! Thanks for joining me. Today, I am speaking with Dr. Whitney Hollins, author of Anna’s Test and advocate for children who have a parent involved with the justice system. As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated parent, Dr. Hollins’ experiences led her to explore the ways children can navigate the unique set of circumstances that parental incarceration presents. I first met Dr. Hollins when KidsMates promoted Anna’s Test. Dr. Whitney regularly advocates for children of incarcerated parents, knowing firsthand what those children have experienced. I loved her book, especially the positive imagery regarding prison visits. The book’s overall theme is clear - having an incarcerated parent doesn’t limit you. It’s a simple message, but one that’s important to hear over and over. Luckily, we have Dr. Hollins as our guest today, and I know she has more wisdom to share.
David: Dr. Hollins, great to have you here at KidsMates! Thank you for joining us today. The holidays are a special time of year where we can remember to be grateful for so many things. It's also a time to remember what's happened in our lives so far. Can you tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system?
Dr. Hollins: My father was incarcerated for over 24 years during my childhood. He did three separate bids; the final one found him spending 20 years in federal prison. When I was younger and my father was in state prison, my grandmother would take us to visit him pretty regularly. There are still some family photos of us there. However, when I was 11 my father went to federal prison. There were times when the facility he was in was over 8 hours away. Between feelings of anger and confusion, I didn’t want to make the trip to visit anymore. My grandmother couldn’t go as often because of the distance and expense. My mother didn’t push me to go so I simply didn’t visit. I didn’t see my father again in person until I was in my 30s. In addition, as my brothers got older, both were incarcerated at some point. I suppose my story with the criminal justice system is simply that I love a few people who were incarcerated at some point. Each story is different - time, location, relationship, etc., but the difficulty of loving someone behind bars was the same.
David: You’re right, every child’s story about caring for someone in prison is different, but there’s a common hardship we all experience. What’s the most important thing you're working on now to help children or families facing the same challenges you did as a child?
Dr. Hollins: In the last year, I finished co-authoring a curriculum (Joining Forces: A School-Based Support Circle for Youth Directly Impacted by Incarceration) with Pamela Brunskill, another directly impacted individual. As educators and children of incarcerated parents, we both recognized the lack of resources available in schools for directly impacted children. We decided to build a curriculum from scratch. At first, it seemed like a daunting task, but it started to click rather quickly. We now have a K-12 curriculum that can be used in schools to support directly impacted children. It has been piloted in Buffalo and is going to be used at three high schools in Minnesota. It is a small start, but it is a start. We are hopeful that in 2021, Joining Forces will expand to schools nationwide. I am really proud of it because it shows what happens when our community comes together. We now have a curriculum for directly impacted individuals by directly impacted individuals.
David: That sounds amazing! We can help each other grow stronger when we work together and share our knowledge. It’s reassuring to know that others face the same challenges. What else don’t people understand about kids with incarcerated parents that you think they should know?
Dr. Hollins: This is an interesting question. I think there is a misconception about children of incarcerated parents in general. Years of research has painted us as weak, vulnerable and prone to adverse outcomes. However, as I’ve gotten older and I have gotten to know more and more of my community, I realize how brilliant and strong we really are. It’s amazing to see people from all walks of life who have experienced parental incarceration. If there was less stigma surrounding incarceration, I bet we would hear from even more individuals who have experienced parental incarceration and triumphed.
David: I can’t agree more. The stigma of being connected to an incarcerated person is real, but we're much stronger than anyone thinks. Are there any other important issues you see affecting children or families dealing with incarceration?
Dr. Hollins: For me, it is really important that people understand that a lot of the trauma connected with parental incarceration comes from systemic violence. Parents are placed hours and hours away from their families and children. Families who already struggled financially are burdened by the cost of calls and visits. Many people find the visiting facilities and procedures unwelcoming and intimidating. Whole families are being punished when one member is sentenced. So yes, being separated from your parent for any reason is tough. However, the systems that govern incarceration have made it a particularly hostile environment for the people incarcerated and their loved ones. We need to center that in this conversation. Oftentimes, people put the trauma on the parent for being incarcerated, but there is another way. We need to take a critical look at the way incarceration is handled in this country because there is a different way. There is a humane way.
David: Yes, visiting was always hard. I never knew what to expect. Many times, my family would show up, and the facility was in lockdown. It was the saddest trip back home, not knowing what had happened or if my dad was safe. How did you cope with the adversity? Any tips we can use?
Dr. Hollins: For a child dealing with adversity, I would remind them that adversity is a part of life. Most of us will encounter adversity throughout our lives and we have to find a way to acknowledge and overcome the challenges that we face. One way to be ready for adversity is to have a strong sense of self and a strong support system. Take time to figure out who you are and what you love. Strengthen relationships with people who care for you and have your best interests at heart. I would also remind them that a setback is a layover, not a destination. Things will not always move forward perfectly, but as long as we keep moving, we will eventually reach our goal. Cry if you need to. Grieve if you need to. Feel what you need to. Then get back up.
David: Do what you need to do to heal, but keep moving forward. Is that wisdom from your personal experience or has someone in particular influenced your thoughts on incarceration?
Dr. Hollins: My thoughts on incarceration have been influenced in many ways. Because parental incarceration was my dissertation topic, I had to do a tremendous amount of reading and analyzing of previous research. In order to address the topic properly, I needed to read not only about children of incarcerated parents, but mass incarceration itself. In addition, conducting research allowed me to learn from some really wonderful youth who challenged my perspective on things. Working with organizations and speaking on panels has introduced me to a larger community which has also allowed me to learn so much. I am constantly gaining knowledge and my thoughts are always evolving. I look forward to learning more from the amazing youth advocates who are taking charge.
David: You’ve been a positive force for social change. If you were giving advice for how a young person could make a lasting impact, what would you say?
Dr. Hollins: Making a difference can happen in so many ways. Sometimes I think people are scared to be an advocate or activist because they only envision it in a certain way, but there are so many ways to be involved. Think of a strength you have and figure out how it can be utilized. Whether it is public speaking, marketing, graphic design, writing, music… there is a space for it. Take your talent and use it to make a difference.
David: Use what you have to make an impact. I know that's what you'll be doing as you transition to the District of Columbia Public Schools as a Specialist in Early Childhood Education. Thank you again, Dr. Hollins, for joining us today. It’s been terrific!
For more information about Dr. Whitney Hollins, click here.